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Aleatoric Composition and John Cage
Aleatory - Indeterminate music in which certain elements of performance (such as pitch,
rhythm, or form) are left to choice or chance.
Simply stated, a musical factor is indeterminate if it is dictated by chance and operates
without any links to other factors. A notated musical score may be indeterminateunpredictable and unspecified – with respect to its composition or its performance.
John Cage, a popular composer of aleatoric or “chance” music was know to use
the term “Chaos” with positive associations, as in his statement:
“Here we are. Let us say Yes to our presence together in Chaos.”
In Cage’s early works Music of Changes and Imaginary Landscape #4 for twelve
radios, his creative process was dictated by a complex series of chance operations. The
aim of allowing compositional decision s to be made by tossing a coin was to remove
Cage’s will and personality from the operation- in his words, “letting sounds be
themselves.” The results however were precisely notated and permanently fixed,
suggesting faithful, accurate realization by a performer along traditional lines. By the
late 1950s Cage had come to believe that such control over performers was virtual
enslavement and inconsistent with his philosophy. Motivated by his desire to see
performers enjoying the same freedom he had won for himself (and for sounds), he began
to extend his idea of indeterminacy into the domain of performance. (Schwartz and Godfrey
In 1952 Cage wrote 4’33”, consisting of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence
subdivided into 3 movements and usually performed by a pianist (although the score
permits other realizations as well). This piece presents us with a situation in which the
three activities of composition, performance and listening are equally chance-derived. It
focuses on duration rather than sound in which Cage suggests that music can be redefined
as a time art, a structured vehicle for articulating the passage of time. This piece forces
us to acknowledge that there is really no such phenomenon as “silence.” There are
simply those sounds that are intended and those that are unintended. A performance of
4’33” provides a frame within which unplanned, accidentally produced environmental
sounds- a cough, a ticking of a clock, an airplane overhead, the room’s ventilation
system- emerge as primary content. Perhaps Cage was alluding to such an experience in
his statement that “the music I prefer, even to my own or anyone else’s, is what we are
hearing if we are just quiet.”
Cage’s written music itself is frequently based on randomly arrived-at-sources,
such as astronomical charts or the imperfections on the manuscript paper. While these
experiments have endeared Cage to many fellow artists, particularly those engaged in
theatre, poetry, or dance, they have also provoked great hostility. (Schwartz and Godfrey
Compose a chance composition for 1 to 3 instruments. Any or all of the following
elements can be indeterminate:
1. Notation
2. Performance
3. Listening/observational experience of the audience
Explain your compositional process/method. Which part of your piece was indeterminate
(rhythm, pitch, expressive components)? Was their a formula to determine the elements
of the composition?
Beyond that, there are no further parameters for this assignment. Be sure to be as clear
and specific as possible in your score or performance instructions. Write a brief
paragraph giving your hypothesis regarding the following:
1. Performance outcomes: (perhaps there are several possible outcomes; suggest
two or three). Give a description of what you expect the piece will sound like.
2. Audience experience: How do you think the audience will respond emotionally,
intellectually or physically to the composition and its performance?
3. The Creative Process: Think about the Creative Process. Can we use the
creative process when we compose an indeterminate work? How is the process
different for this type of piece?